I’ve spend considerable time documenting the utter pseudoscience, misinformation, and downright idiocy about “chemicals” in food regularly inflicted on the public by the misguided “food activist” named Vani Hari, who is better known by the moniker she chose for herself “The Food Babe.” Indeed, in decade-plus that I’ve been running this blog and the few years before that during which I honed my skeptical skills on Usenet and other discussion forums, rarely have I come across someone so full of the arrogance of ignorance, someone who is the living embodiment of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Perhaps the most spectacularly dumb thing I’ve seen her say is that there “is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever.”
No, actually, there’s something even dumber that Hari’s said, namely her repeating of a particularly silly adage that that if you can’t pronounce a chemical’s name (actually, if a third grader can’t pronounce it), you shouldn’t be eating it, which has led to all sorts of ridicule in which one wonders whether you can have more chemicals in your food if you have a chemistry degree because, you know, you can pronounce them.
Oh, and don’t even get me started on Hari’s now infamous article about the air in commercial airplanes, which was so epic in its ignorance that she actually tried to make it disappear down the memory hole. If you’re going to accuse airlines of diluting the oxygen in their airplanes with 50% nitrogen and don’t know that the atmosphere is close to 80% nitrogen naturally, you’ve really embarrassed yourself royally.
When last I left The Food Babe, she was very, very unhappy over an article by Courtney Rubin in the New York Times entitled Taking On the Food Industry, One Blog Post at a Time, so much so that, uncharacteristically, she actually struck back with a nasty and self-pitying article. I suppose the reason was obvious. She had, to my knowledge, never been the subject of such a critical article by a media outlet as large and important as the NYT. More importantly, I suspect that Hari was concerned because her first book had just been released, and articles as critical as Rubin’s in the NYT could be bad for sales. After all, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about The Food Babe, it’s that she’s all about monetizing her activities, the better to fund her “activism.”
So why am I bringing The Food Babe up again?
The other day, I noticed an influx of traffic coming to this blog from, of all places, Gawker.com, which to me seemed to be a rather unlikely site to be directing traffic my way. It turns out that the traffic was coming from an article by Yvette d’Entremont entitled The “Food Babe” Blogger Is Full of Shit. No doubt. I couldn’t have put it better myself, and indeed, the article is an irreverent and somewhat profane takedown of the phenomenon that is The Food Babe. I don’t need to quote large swaths of it, because I’ve covered much the same ground myself over several blog posts, but I must admit that its attitude is something Orac can admire because, well, it’s quite insolent. What you need to know are a couple of things:
I am an analytical chemist with a background in forensics and toxicology. Before working full-time as a science writer and public speaker, I worked as a chemistry professor, a toxicology chemist, and in research analyzing pesticides for safety. I now run my own blog, Science Babe, dedicated to debunking pseudoscience that tends to proliferate in the blogosphere. Reading Hari’s site, it’s rare to come across a single scientific fact. Between her egregious abuse of the word “toxin” anytime there’s a chemical she can’t pronounce and asserting that everyone who disagrees with her is a paid shill, it’s hard to pinpoint her biggest sin.
Some other statements from The Food Babe were also noted, ones that I hadn’t heard before, such as some nonsense about kale that I will get to shortly.
In the interests of full disclosure, I will admit here that I haven’t always seen eye-to-eye with d’Entremont. In particular, I wasn’t too pleased when she posted pictures of herself on Facebook smiling with heroes to the antivaccine movement, Robert “Dr. Bob” Sears and “Dr. Jay” Gordon, with the latter of whom she is shown planting a big kiss on the cheek. That’s all I’m going to say about that right now. Past disagreements aside, in this particular case, Yvette d’Entremont/Science Babe is on very solid ground. And, of course, she’s a chemist; chemists like Joe Schwarcz, for instance, are particularly irritated by The Food Babe because Vani Hari is relentless in spreading misinformation, pseudoscience, and fear mongering about chemicals to a wide audience and, of course, because her misinformation is of a particularly painfully stupid variety that causes real pain to real chemists when they read it, much as quacks’ misuse of epigenetics causes me pain or their misuse of “quantum” causes physicists pain. Nor is it an ad hominem attack to say this, because her statements are what’s being criticized here because they are so demonstrably wrong.
In any case, I can’t help but wonder whether Hari is becoming more sensitive to criticism, if she has a particularly intense dislike of d’Entremont, or if she’s decided to adopt a different philosophy over criticism, a more—shall we say?—Scientology-like philosophy of always hitting critics back hard. The other thing I can’t help but notice is that Hari’s M.O. has become quite predictable: Start out with an ad hominem attack, specifically variants of the pharma shill gambit such as the Monsanto shill or the chemical industry shill gambits, and then petulantly double down on her previous pseudoscience. Her response to Science Babe, Response to Gawker “The Food Babe Blogger is Full of…”—Hari is not known for her originality or creativity in titles or much of anything else other than being a publicity hound—certainly follows that broad template.
After self-righteously taking on the role of the wounded warrior against evil chemicals, whining that “the author says I’m full of $hit, but I’m full of heart, love and hope for a better future, and I know you are too,” she launches straight into the ad hominems, because, you know, Science Babe worked for an evil chemical company:
She is undoubtedly pro-chemical and pro-GMO and has proven this fact over and over again but her background might be the most convincing. Her name is Yvette d’Entremont and when she started the “Science Babe” facebook page and business, she worked for Amvac Chemical, as reported in the Seattle Times, “Amvac Chemical in Los Angeles has found a profitable — and controversial — niche by buying manufacturing rights to older pesticides, many of them at risk of being banned or restricted because of safety concerns”. Yes, you read that right, a company that sells dangerous and unsafe chemicals for profit.
Even if all of this is true, so what? It doesn’t mean d’Entremont is incorrect in her criticisms. Let’s put it this way. Hari makes quite the living stoking fears about “chemicals” in food. I don’t dismiss her because of that. I dismiss her because she can’t get her facts straight, she clearly lacks even a rudimentary understanding of some very basic chemistry, and she in essence quackmails companies by unleashing her “Food Babe Army” against them if they don’t remove from their product the latest chemical whose name she can’t pronounce that’s attracted her attention. It’s not for nothing that I and other bloggers have dubbed Hari the “Jenny McCarthy of food.” It’s an apt comparison.
Of course, as I said before, this is The Food Babe’s M.O. As Science Babe pointed out, she did it to Dr. Joe Schwarcz, as well as to my good bud Dr. Steve Novella, and even, to a lesser extent, me. She so utterly lacks self-awareness that she seems completely oblivious to this when she whines about being criticized. She gives as good as she gets and takes it one step further, insinuating that the reason she is being criticized is because all her critics are somehow in the thrall of the food and/or chemical industries. Unfortunately, to my reading, d’Entremont rather too airily dismisses Hari’s claims that she’s being attacked because she’s a woman. As I noted before, Hari has been subject to some pretty nasty misogyny, a fact of life, unfortunately, for all too many women who express controversial opinions online, whether they are cranks like Hari or pro-science advocates like d’Entrement. Hari, however, cynically uses those vile comments to try to represent them as being typical of her critics, in essence trying to tar us with the misogyny of the few knuckle draggers who post rape threats on her Facebook page. Whether she honestly conflates them with legitimate critics in her mind or is cynically using their unforgivable nastiness as a weapon, I leave the reader to decide.
In any case, the next part of Hari’s response is an anonymous attack from someone claiming to have knowledge of d’Entrement’s professional career. It’s as low and ugly as one might expect, so much so that I’m going to quote it in its entirety, in case Hari sends her nasty response down the memory hole too:
Dear Ms Vani, I am a research professional of some standing and for that reason I have chosen to use an assumed name. I have been following the progress of Yvette Guinevere d’Entremont (aka ScienceBabe) with some interest as she is a former colleague. I would like to impart some interesting information to you, which may use this for whatever purpose you see fit. What I am about to tell you is easily verifiable. Good science is based on producing original work and publishing in a peer reviewed context, self published armchair science as scibabe.com is peddling gives science a bad name. Taking swipes at the work and opinions of others is not science, unless you have original data that draws other work into question. What makes you and her different is that you don’t claim to be a scientist. If you have solid reasoning, you don’t need to be vitriolic in your posts as science babe is, with much of her abuse directed towards you. Some colleagues and I do not feel this is appropriate, we don’t like bullying, and so here are several easily verifiable facts about science babe that you may wish to point out to her next time you appear in her twitter/blog crosshairs: 1) Yvette Guinevere d’Entremont has no peer reviewed scientific publications. 2) Her master’s thesis from Anglia Ruskin University was not deemed of sufficient quality for publication. 3) Her claim that she was a college professor is laughable, she was an assistant instructor (one level above a TA) at Emmanuel College in Boston for less than 1 year. 4) She is currently being terminated from her position at Amvac for her activities on Scibabe. A description from a senior colleague on seeing Scibabe.com perhaps sums her up best “she’s a not a scientist, she’s a professional button pressor for a scientific company. I could have a talented undergraduate doing her job in less than 2 days”. For obvious reasons I’m not going to put a name to that quote. There’s nothing I’ve revealed here that can’t be easily verified. If I can be of any further assistance, please don’t hesitate to get in touch via the email I have listed on this page. Kind regards.”
One wonders what Hari would say if one of her critics published similar accusations from an anonymous source who claimed to have worked with her back in her corporate days. Somehow, I doubt she’d fail to point out that the source is anonymous and that there is no way to verify what the source is saying.
Of course, if d’Entremont truly was terminated for her activities as Science Babe, it’s just another indication as to why people expressing a strong point of view might want to maintain a pseudonym. In fact, I started out completely pseudonymous when I started this blog for the very same reason and soon learned that cranks like The Food Babe are relentless in trying to “out” critics, mainly because they can’t deal with their arguments from a scientific standpoint and have to use ad hominem attacks, just the same way that Hari has done with scientists in the past and the same way she’s doing now with d’Entremont. Fortunately, I’ve always been in university environments where academic freedom is valued. People working for private companies can expect no such understanding. Even so, it took me years before I shed the Orac ‘nym elsewhere and before I got to the point where I no longer cared that my real identity is one of the worst-kept secrets of the skeptical blogosphere and it’s almost trivial to find out who I am, although I do still maintain the ‘nym because I like it and partially out of sheer cussedness.
Rather like my namesake. Or should I say, ‘nym sake?
Then, of course, as she always does, Hari has to take it one step further, trolling Science Babe’s Facebook page relentlessly until she found some seemingly damning comments about how Gawker commissioned d’Entremont’s article. Except that they’re not, really. There are comments about how Gawker approached d’Entrement for a “comprehensive takedown.” OK, so what? Slate.com approached me to do an article about Prince Charles’ love of pseudoscience a couple of months ago, and I did it. Hari also posts a notice from Gawker about advertising and a marketing campaign for a brand. I suspect you know what’s coming next. Hari insinuates:
Gawker paid Ms. d’Entremont for this piece – but who paid Gawker?
Gee, Ms. Hari. Can you make it explicit? You don’t mean pesticide or food companies, do you? Of course you do. Why not just come out and say it, rather than insinuating it? Maybe it’s to avoid obvious libel.
Hari concludes with a list of “refutations” to criticisms of her scientific ignorance in bullet-point form. They’re nothing you haven’t heard before, although two stand out for sheer silliness. First, Hari responds to the aforementioned excerpt from her book The Food Babe Way in which she asserts, “There is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever,” a comment I used as the title of a post.
It turns out that Hari thinks she was taken out of context:
My statement that “There is no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest ever” was taken from my book on page 40 from the section regarding ractopamine and growth hormones. My critics took it out of context (after The Atlantic decided to highlight the quote as a side bar). My point was in the context of hormone mimicking chemicals and growth stimulants. Extremely low levels of compounds that mimic hormones work in the body like hormones. That is why I don’t believe there is any acceptable level of these chemicals to ingest, ever. Certainly reducing all synthetic, artificial chemicals is best, but it is difficult to avoid each and every one of them in all amounts.
Except that’s not what Hari said. She didn’t say there is “no acceptable level of endocrine disruptors or hormone-mimicking chemicals, ever.” That would still be very wrong from the standpoint of chemistry and biology, of course, but perhaps not as spectacularly wrong as her actual quote in all its ignorant glory. No, Hari said, “There is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest ever.” I’m sorry, there’s just no “context” that can make that mean anything else other than what she was so roundly and justifiably mocked for. Maybe she needs a better editor and will correct that howler in the paperback edition.
Second, in her Gawker piece, d’Entrement notes that Hari has said:
The enzymes released from kale go in to your liver and trigger cancer fighting chemicals that literally dissolve unhealthy cells throughout your body.
Which is really, really ignorant of not just chemistry, but of basic biochemistry and physiology. Enzymes in kale are proteins and therefore digested to their constituent amino acids. They do not send enzymes to the liver, triggering the liver to release cancer fighting chemicals. (One wonders if she acknowledges that these beneficial substances are actually chemicals as a direct retort to the many times critics have noted her fear of chemicals.) Nor am I aware of chemicals that “literally dissolve unhealthy cells throughout your body.”
So what’s Hari’s response:
There is evidence that eating cruciferous and green leafy vegetables – like Kale – can reduce your cancer risk by protecting cells from DNA damage, inactivating carcinogens and inducing cell death.
Which rather misses the point. The studies cited in that link are all cell culture and animal culture, and Hari also leaves out the part about how studies in humans over whether such vegetables can prevent cancer have shown mixed results.
You know, that one example reminds me, more than anything else, of our old friend Dr. Oz and how he sells supplements. Everything is the greatest “fat-buster” ever that “melts fat,” the way Hari gushingly describes kale as unleashing chemicals that “literally dissolve unhealthy cells throughout your body.” That’s because, Hari, like Oz, is far more about the marketing than the science. She markets her ignorance and has made quite a healthy living from it.
All of this makes me wonder why Hari is lashing out at her critics now. I can understand why she went after the NYT. At attack published in the NYT is a big deal; ignoring it is perilous. Unfortunately, her response only dug herself into a deeper hole. But Gawker? Why does she care what Gawker says about her, regardless of who wrote the article?
I think this explains it:
Maybe. But I think Hari is disturbed that a major online media outlet that runs several high traffic sites might be turning against her and likely won’t be printing (or so we hope) any more highly credulous treatments of Hari’s ignorance, as cited. That, I suspect, is why she responded.
ADDENDUM: Yvette just posted this after the link to this on my Facebook page:
I believe the email presented as being from a “colleague” is from someone I used to date. As for being a “colleague?” We worked together at summer camp and years later he worked in kinesiology and we never worked together as scientists.
I was not fired from Amvac, they had two bad years financially and I was given six weeks of notice that I would be losing my job because there was no room for me in the following year’s budget. My boss and I discussed me coming back to consult as needed and I’ve stopped in to visit multiple times. It was confirmed that my blog had nothing to do with it.
This was libel.